Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Field: Very Thought-Provoking

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields are not the nicest places to visit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but they are very thought provoking. These locations exhibit the insanity that Pol Pot released on his country. It is so crazy. It is incomprehensible.  In my point of view, it is important to know the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge to understand modern Cambodia. Even though these are creepy places filled with sadness, to me, it is a must-see for anyone visiting Cambodia to be reminded of the madness that happened in the past and in order to prevent a re-occurrence in the future.

The Khmer Rouge regime was led by Pol Pot, who was a communist. He ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. He wanted Cambodia to be rural, classless, and he banned ownership of anything. He also abolished money, religion, and made everyone wear simple black clothes. He also banned people from leaving their present area and prohibited more than two people meeting at one time to prevent discussion of his regime. If a group of two or more people were caught talking, they were often sent to prison for interrogation and then execution. The Khmer Rouge arrested and eventually executed the members of the former government, intellectuals, professionals, university students, and even targeted ethnic groups such as Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Muslims, Catholics, Laotians and Buddhist monks who lived in Cambodia. It is estimated that approximately 3 million people out of a total population of 8 million Cambodians were killed at the time.

As soon as we arrived at the entrance gate of both Tuol Sleng and Killing Fields, we were greeted by men and women with missing limbs and who were desperately thin and begged for money.

It was a moving experience! It is so hard to believe that these cruelties happened very recently. I wonder what Cambodia would be like today if this Khmer Rouge regime had never taken place.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum:

Unlike any other museums, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) is very simple, but it displays the distressing part of Cambodia’s history. The building had once been a high school. The grassy area in front of it looked like the place where the children would have gathered and played during their break time. However, when the Khmer Rouge had taken over the country in 1975, schooling had been abolished, and they had used the school field as an area of torture.

The site has four main buildings named A, B, C, and D. Building A has the large cells, for special prisoners. Building B contains the galleries of photographs of the prisoners that were taken when they arrived at the S-21. Building C where the small prison cells are, some are made of wood dividers, and some are bricks. Building D is where you can find the instruments of torture.

As we walked through the cells, we saw the photographs of the victims (men, women and children), the metal beds to which the victims were chained, the blood stains that were still on the floor, the skulls in the cabinets and the instruments they used for torture. All these speak volumes and is very heart wrenching. Personally, I found every part of it very difficult to see as it brought me face to face with the horrors and atrocities. It is so sad to think about all the people who had their lives taken away from them by the Khmer Rouge.

Below are the photographs of the tools that the Khmer Rouge used to torture the prisoners. The first photo was where they tied the victim with a rope on the ankles and hung the victim upside-down for so long and dipped the head into huge pots filled with hot water.

I did not expect that I would be so affected, but as soon as we entered the first room in the first building and saw the blood sprinkled on the ceiling, I felt bummed out. You cannot visit Phnom Penh and not to learn what these people have been through.

Choeung Ek, The killing Field:

Choeung Ek is one of the killing fields in Cambodia as it is the site of a mass grave of the victims of the Khmer Rouge who were killed in the period 1975-1979. It was also where the Khmer Rouge regime executed the victims who were kept by the Khmer Rouge in Tuol Sleng. It is such a place of tragedy and horror. The place was very peaceful, serene and perfect for reflection.

The tree below is called the Killing Tree because it was where the executioners used to beat the children.

Another tree below is called a Magic Tree. It was used to hang a loudspeaker to prevent the moan of the people to be heard by the people outside as the prisoners were being executed.

We were chilled to realize that not all bones and teeth had been excavated, and our horror reached a peak when we found out that we had just walked on a tooth so small that it could only have been that of a very young child. We proceeded extremely carefully then, with tears in our eyes. We had a really good guided audio tour and it took us around the place explaining what happened and telling the tales from survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime very clearly. We could stop, sat on the bench and replayed an episode from the audio tour.

Little Lilly Travel Tip:

  • The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is in the center of town and close to most hotels. The Choeung Ek, Killing Field is about 17 km south of Phnom Penh (approximately 45 minutes tuk tuk ride out). I suggest to bring a scarf or mask because the roads are very bumpy and dusty.
  • I recommend that you should see the Tuol Sleng before the Killing Fields as the information flows better and it gives you a clearer picture of what people went through, if you wish to do things in this order.
  • The Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields are not suitable for young children as there are visible human remains such as bones, skulls and some terrible photos.
  • The tour can be done with or without a guide. We didn’t get a guide for ourselves and it was OK. At the end of the exhibit, we met one survivor and we were proud to shake his hand and bought his book which was written in English.
  • It is very confronting, so be prepared for a lot of emotions.